Texas Tech offensive line coach Matt Moore looked at Justin Keown during pre-game warmups last weekend, and the Tech center flashed a thumbs-up in return. Moore acknowledged the gesture with a nod, then told Keown before kickoff of the Tech-Iowa State game to keep his helmet nearby.
Keown was on his way back into the lineup — for the second time this season, after separate knee injuries. In the last 21/2 months, the Red Raiders’ 6-foot-4, 286-pound senior has suffered tears to the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee and a sprained MCL in his left knee.
But he’s made it a point to get back as soon as possible.
“That’s why I came all the way from South Carolina, to play here,” said Keown, who has missed only two games. “Being my last season, I wanted to give it my all. My family’s back home watching me, supporting me. I wanted to play for them. It means so much to me in so many different ways.”
Keown, who has 19 career starts, tore the ACL and the MCL in his right knee during an Aug. 15 preseason practice. He missed the first two games, returned for the Sept. 24 game against Nevada and was back in the starting lineup the next week. Then he suffered the sprained MCL in the other knee on the second play of the Red Raiders’ 41-38 victory Oct. 22 at Oklahoma.
“Everybody was telling me it was a two- to three-week injury; I’d be out,” Keown said of the more recent setback. “I wasn’t having that.”
Last week, Moore gave Keown the signal before the Red Raiders’ third series. He grabbed his helmet, went back into the fray and played until the game was out of hand midway through the fourth quarter.
Keown said being as vigilant as possible with his rehabilitation and trying to meet or beat the projected time frame for his return is part of being a leader. He said team chaplain Steve Grant, a former NFL player, passed along a book that helped, too.
“It was about going through things like this as an athlete and overcoming different challenges,” Keown said. “That kind of helped me through, and I just stayed positive the whole time.”
Teammates have taken notice, Quarterback Seth Doege, with well-documented knee problems of his own, can relate to Keown’s rough season.
“Obviously, he’s been through two knee problems, but he keeps fighting and keeps rehabbing,” Doege said. “He’s a leader of that offensive line, so once he’s in there, they kind of feel a little more comfortable. I think they get a feeling that he kind of expects them to do their job, and they do it a little better when he’s in.”
It’s not just the offensive line for whom Keown has a settling effect. Freshman running back DeAndre Washington said he likes seeing No. 73 in front of him, too.
“He’s been in this offense for five years, so he knows it like the back of his hand,” Washington said. “Him being out on the field makes me more comfortable, because he actually calls the offense. He knows everything. It gives me a confident feeling knowing Justin’s out there, knowing if I ever need something he’s right there.”
Keown said when he suffered the ACL and MCL tears in August, he was told he had a 50 to 60 percent chance to return successfully this season. He said Tech trainer Arnold Gamber told him he’d had about a dozen players suffer that sort of injury in the past, and about half made it back the same season.
Since the mid-August injury, Keown said his right MCL has healed on its own. He’ll have surgery to repair the ACL after the season.
But during his return, his knees haven’t felt as bad as one might expect.
“They tape it up pretty good, brace it. It feels stable,” he said. “It feels like normal knees when I’m out there playing. I don’t notice a difference when I’m out there.”
One of the hard parts of the last two months was starting the Oklahoma game, then having to watch all but the first two plays of Tech’s epic upset from the sideline.
“They ended up giving me a game ball for keeping the sidelines up and not being negative when things were going wrong,” Keown said. “So I did what I could.”
n Who: Texas Tech at Texas
n When: 11 a.m. Saturday
n Where: Royal-Memorial Stadium, Austin
n Records: Tech 5-3, 2-3 in Big 12 Conference; Texas 5-2, 2-2
n TV: FX (Suddenlink Cable channel 36)
n Last game: Iowa State 41, Tech 7; Texas 43, Kansas 0
n Last meeting: Texas 24, Tech 14 last year in Lubbock.
n Line: Texas by 14.